Just Like The Pros- On Set With Bob Scarpelli and Peter Mortimer
[I’m trying something new, posting the photos at the end of the article. Check-m-out.]
I’m not going to start this blog post by apologizing for not updating. We’ve been busy with logistics and if you have a problem with that then we can fight to the death by the fires of Colorado. Which is where we are, and where we will be for several weeks. We even moved into a house! The RV (Residential Versatility) Project continues, and despite the record highs in Fort Collins, we couldn’t be happier to be in the epicenter of USA Climbing, which everyone knows is not Capen Park, Missouri. The Front Range is to the climbing scene what Hollywood is for the celebrity rehab scene.
Case in point: We dropped the trailer in Brad’s driveway on Saturday. (Remember Brad, the chiseled hand-stand-walking offwidth master with laser-eyes, whom we met in Hueco?) On Sunday morning, we drove an hour north to Vedauwoo, WY to meet Pete, Bob, Nick and Becca.
Pete is Peter Mortimer, who, along with Nick Rosen, runs Sender Films. Becca is a Sender employee until the fall semester at USC rolls around. The three Sender folks were filming for this year’s Reel Rock tour, specifically for a segment about off-width climbing. Brad had told them about the RV Project crew, and luckily for us, Sender was happy to have us along.
Bob is Bob Scarpelli. We met him in the parking lot. He is 63, and conjures up a shorn version of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, except his skin tone doesn’t come from a spray bottle. Bob has been been climbing in Vedauwoo since around 1968. To call him a “local” is to call Yo-Yo Ma a musician. Bob is the Wizard of Wide, a legend, a pillar of ethics and a respected all-round badass. He did scary wide first ascents before big cams mitigated the scary. He looks like the sort of person who could do Dominik Hasek’s job in his underwear. There is even a SuperTopo thread about how rad he is.
Let me quickly explain something about offwidth climbing. It is a sub-category of the sub-sport of crack climbing. It encompasses anything greater than about 4” wide, which is the point at which cracks get so wide that you can’t use a single hand or fist jam. Here’s where things get interesting: hand-stacks, arm-bars, chicken-wings, knee-locks, foot-stacking, and full-on chimney climbing gets you from the bottom to the top. This is the polar opposite of your glamorous, gymnastic, my-clothes-are-too-heavy style climbing that makes the New York Times. Offwidth climbing is like the janitorial services department of rock climbing: people are aware of its existence, and might even grudgingly admit to its occasional necessity, but most will avoid it. Incidentally, Bob works in facilities management.
In order to climb wide cracks, you must armor up. Tape on the hands, long pants and high-tops for the legs and ankles, and two layers on the torso. The rock in Vedauwoo is blank granite with large crystals, and when wedging one’s shoulder into one side of a flared fissure and pushing hard against the other side with one’s forearm, you want some protection. Offwidths are climbed inch by inch, not by long moves. In order to avoid falling, you have to get stuck, but in order to move, you must scrape your way up. Offwidths are blue-collar, intimidating, unpleasant trench warfare with Type II fun written all over them, but regardless of how you feel about ever doing them yourself, you have to admit that, even if you don’t enjoy watching, it’s a pure and respectable form of climbing.
When Bob talks about the gritty, blue-collar pursuit of offwidth climbing, he suddenly becomes a scientist. Like a football coach explaining the graceful, calculated choreography of eleven grunting X’s and O’s, Bob is able to transform wide cracks from scrape-y gruntfests to a blank substrate for precise, tactical movements, all of which must be executed in perfect order and good style in order to achieve success. He talks about it in a way even a boulderer could understand.
Many years ago, Bob took Brad under his mighty wing and the two followed the wide path. Because this is such a small niche in climbing, you could say that a torch of sorts had been passed. Brad went on to do numerous hard wide first ascents in Vedauwoo and elsewhere. He has taken Adam under his own wing, passing the torch again to another generation of young, masochistic crack-stuffers.
The trip to Vedauwoo was an opportunity to work alongside professional filmmakers in the climbing industry. We here at the RV Project pride ourselves on our scrappy unprofessionalism. We film whatever we find interesting or inspiring, and then cobble something together under a self-imposed deadline. Over two days in Vedauwoo with the Sender crew, we learned that, in fact, we do it just like the pros.
In the parking lot, Bob and Brad threw together a short list of climbs to visit, with the goal of shooting some of the more wickedly funky offwidth techniques. Nick and Pete later admitted that they had virtually no plan. They brought a bunch of gear and went with the flow. At the first stop of the day, a wide crack boulder problem, they discovered their Go Pro was out of batteries. Professio-what?
But they got it done. The impressive part is that they never were stressed, never caused anyone else stress. They got their shots but didn’t rush, they went with the flow, and they made us all feel welcome on the set. On Sunday, they filmed Brad leading Big Pink, a terrifying Bob Scarpelli route that theoretically goes at 5.11b. Then Bob soloed Jay’s Solo, a “5.10+” that looked anything but casual. In the afternoon we drove to Squat, another Bob route with a vicious roof crack that goes at 5.12. Bob had gone home, but Brad and Adam spent the rest of the day taking a couple of burns and whipping out, while the Sender crew drooled over the awesome crane footage they were getting. Incidentally, the crane they have is 20 feet long and weighs a mere 40 pounds. Nonetheless, most of the filming was done by hand, or with a tripod.
The next day, Bob was tired from way too much climbing and working and not enough sleep. On top of that, he’s somewhat introverted, and I think the size of the group was stressful. On the first climb of the day, he was asking Brad for help with a blind foot placement. Brad was trying to help, but Bob couldn’t hear and he came off in frustration. Both Brad and Bob have strong personalities, and a brief argument led to Bob going home early. Offwidth climbers can be intense people, and the moment got heated. In the end, no love was lost and the two men apologized to each other.
The group’s energy was a little bit lower at this point, and the weather wasn’t cooperating much. Pete and Nick interviewed Adam about Bob, Brad, and offwidth climbing. Adam then sacked up and flashed the route Left Torpedo Tube, a laughably sandbagged 5.10c with a lengthy runout that John Sherman was scared of. It was his first offwidth flash, a proud route, and a battle, and I’ve never seen someone so psyched on a single pitch summit. He hasn’t stopped talking about it, a week later! Once again, his work ethic, psych, and fearlessness were on display, and Sender got some awesome long shots that you will hopefully see in Reel Rock 2012.
Overall, the weekend was fantastic. Nick and Pete were excited to meet part of the team behind Top Rope Tough Guys, and they may even use some of our footage for their Reel Rock segment. They promised us that they don’t do this much…usually they are in the office chasing down stories and editing footage. When they do other filming, for example Alex Honnold’s recent belittling of Yosemite big walls, it’s much more stressful in terms of logistics and gear hauling. I guess we got lucky.
The two days in Vedauwoo reminded us that scrappy, low-budget productions can turn out much better than glitzy slickness, as long as there’s a compelling story. We can relate, because we aren’t the sort of climbers and videographers that National Geographic drool over, but we feel as though we can spin a good yarn. Nick, for example, had been a journalist for many years before coming to work for Sender.
We ended the trip by eating at Mo Jeaux’s, Brad and Adam’s favorite bar. In fact, they even have a meal there that they have ordered so many times that it’s now called “The Bradam.” It’s a pile of pulled pork, sweet potato fries, and green beans. “Madam, a Bradam please.”
And now we’re settling in. We are sharing a house with Adam and meeting all kinds of climbers, all of whom apparently are good friends with Daniel (Woods). The climbing plans are piling up. The training is beginning. The fires are burning. And the RV Project is psyched!
Now, to find someone to buy the trailer. You want a trailer?